Pax Americana
Tassles on the Fringe
They Lie ... Sometimes

excerpted from the book


the difference in world view between the United States
and everybody else

by Nicholas Von Hoffman

Nation Books, 2004, paper


The Romans conquered their known world more or less with their bare hands through a discipline which terms like "work ethic" do not begin to describe. These republicans routinely committed what we consider atrocious war crimes and crimes against humanity. Jesus was not the only guy they tacked up on a cross. They were known to line both sides of their highways (road building was one of their things, too) with crucified people. Modern Americans share a penchant for capital punishment with the Romans but may draw a line at a Julius Caesar who would go into enemy-towns in what is now France, chop off the sword hands of every able bodied man and then write home bragging about it.

Those dreaming of an American empire might ask themselves if they have the moxie for it. The empire business, c~ when viewed from an individual's point of view, is similar to capital punishment. Unless you know you've got what it takes to stick the needles in the veins of the condemned, you shouldn't be arguing for it. To win and run an empire you need a Roman stomach. You need to be able to destroy homes, burn villages, torture captives, shoot hostages, rape women in front of their parents, carry out reprisals on innocents; those kinds of activities. The Republican Romans could do those things, and once upon a time, the monarchical British, the Spanish, and so forth could do likewise. We Americans have also had our little imperial moments, but today ... acts of that kind are not acceptable.

Ancient Rome is an example of preemptive, aggressive warfare by a democracy, but the contemporary blood and guts party uses the imperial concept to push another, related policy. They have stumbled on the Pax Romana, the two hundred year period after the republic was replaced by autocracy, from the reign of Augustus to that of Marcus Aurelius, when the millions within the empire's boundaries lived in peace. In emulation there is to be a Pax Americana, or a supervision of the globe by the United States under which human kind thrives in amity and free trade. For the Roman army, however, the Pax was more like a pox than a pax. The fighting on the borders of the empire was endless and involved the home team absorbing some costly military defeats. Pax Americana sounds altruistic, idealistic, and laudably boy-scoutish-the generous Americans doing something good again-but it can't be enforced with our atomic-tipped spears, as the frustrating American experience in Iraq should make obvious. Weapons of mass destruction, automated warfare, women soldiers in front of monitors in darkened rooms typing instructions to obedient, electronic bombs will doubtless have a part to play in the upcoming war with China, but for the ordinary work of peace-keeping or nation-building or making the natives behave, it is boots on the ground, as the generals say. Pax Americana will be infantry and military police going to uncomfortable, fly blown, flea bitten, far away places where funny little dyspeptic people take pot shots at them. Americans do not have Roman mettle. There will be few volunteers.

In the 21st century it seems that Americans talk the talk of military action, but walking the walk is another matter. War movies depicting the heroic battlefield deeds of our grandparents and ancestors are hits, and occasions for actors and politicians to give speeches which bring tears to the eyes. We can boast of gigantic armies of arcade warriors and combat veterans of Nintendo wars, people who glory in watching the high-IQ munitions demonstrations the Pentagon puts on television. In America the rugged life culture, the kind from which soldiers spring, is confined to watching TV survivor programs.

The armed services maintain their manpower levels by making out that they are as much trade schools as military organizations. Even in periods when unemployment is up and jobs are hard to come by, there are no waiting lists for places in the armed services. A hundred years ago many judges gave riffraff convicted of not-too-terrible crimes the choice of the penitentiary or signing up with the peace-time army. With the coming of the Cold War, permanent peace-time conscription was set in place and the services dispensed with the riffraff. Permanent conscription ended in the 1970S when too many draftees were coming home from Vietnam in body bags. The heat was too much for the politicians, who had to end the draft.

Though Social Security has been called the third rail of American politics, it is low voltage compared to deviating from the party line on the Middle East.

As far back as the 1980s, 11-term Republican Congressman Paul Findley and Charles Percy, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, earned themselves early retirement from elective politics for minor acts of deviation from the submissive party line on the State of Israel. Both Findley and Percy, a three-term Senator whose heresies on the question were quite mild, lost in close elections after their opponents got significant material assistance from pro-Israeli activists. Debate on Israel is an impermissible subject under the dome, although elsewhere in the world, including in Israel itself, policy disputes about who did what right and who did it wrong and what should be done next can be carried on without worrying that your next word will be the last I which will be accorded serious attention.

Findley was defeated in his bid for a 12th term by a combination of redistricting and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, an acronym which strikes fear in the hearts of Washington politicians who are desperate for campaign money and fearful that AIPAC may, instead, give the money to their rivals. Findley was so scarred by what happened to him that he has written five books on the general subject of Israeli politics and has made

The following from the Washington Post in the winter of 2003 shows how saying the wrong thing makes a politician a nonperson: "Jewish organizations condemned Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) yesterday for delivering what they said were anti-Semitic remarks at an antiwar forum in Reston . . .

"At the forum, attended by about 120 people at St. Anne's Episcopal Church on March 3, Moran discussed why he thought antiwar sentiment was not more effective in the United States.

" 'If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq, we would not be doing this,' Moran said, '. . . The leaders of the Jewish community are influential enough that they could change the direction of where this is going, and I think they should.'

"Moran, a seven-term incumbent representing Alexandria, Arlington County and part of Fairfax County, yesterday apologized in a statement, saying, 'I made some insensitive remarks that I deeply regret.' "

Moran's apologies did him no good. He was stripped of his position as regional minority whip in the House of Representatives, threatened with opposition in the next Democratic primary and roundly denounced by rabbis and other important Jewish and non-Jewish figures. Threats of the kind aimed at Moran are not to be taken lightly. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a lobbying and political money organization with a reputation as being at least as dangerous and/or helpful as the fabled American Association of Retired People (AARP), can crush a politician with the same crinkly sound and authority as a heel on a cockroach. Hence the slobbering, undignified apology of a man forced to take back words which he believes to be true.

If James Moran is not an anti-Semite, there are antiSemites under the dome, but nobody can say how many. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which counts overt anti-Semitic acts, reports that they are occurring at the rate of about fifteen hundred a year and are markedly up on college campuses. That anti-Semitism is more prevalent than it has been is the opinion of Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers who says of himself, "I am Jewish, identified but hardly devout." Last September he told an audience in Memorial Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts, "Where anti-Semitism and views that are profoundly antiIsraeli have traditionally been the primary preserve of poorly educated right-wing populists, profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities. Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent."

The feeling of being gagged and intimidated is apparently growing and, with it, a resentment which has a nasty edge. People taking Summers' position, that is, vociferously proIsrael, can have little sense of the existence of a large number of discreet individuals who hold opinions diametrically opposite to his own, although, since they seem to be all over, a person such as Summers probably deals with some of them every day in his own office. They will keep their traps shut and tell him not what they think, but what they know he wants to think that they think. Some of those people dissembling in front of him may also be Jewish. It is not only non-Jews who take discretion over valor and keep their opinions to themselves when it comes to dangerous topics.

Since 9/l1 it seems that the number of silent dissenters has markedly increased and since the Iraqi invasion they have been joined by more subterranean grumblers. The secret resentment and anger is not unlike an underground peat fire. You know it's there but how deep it smolders and how long and how hot it may burn, no one can say.

In the land of the free and the home of the timid and intimidated, the President goes to war for reasons he cannot explain and it is better to let him do it than truncate your future by arguing. In the misty life of the biosphere, protesting has become something akin to a monastic vocation. Once you do it, you find you have crossed a line and become a tassel on the political fringe. You run the risk of being referred to as an activist or even a militant, which is but a few degrees south of crackpot.

The American custom is to forgive a person one protest. After that you must live a blameless political life within the confines of the two-party system. A second protest and you are a -winger, left or right, but whichever side of the bird you are assigned, your goose is cooked. You become like Ramsey Clark, United States Attorney General in the Lyndon Johnson administration, now condemned to wander the earth as a mendicant friar, begging justice in mostly lost causes.

The people of the crystal dome have been known to become agitated when it is revealed to them that their government has not told them the truth. They soon forget, which makes it possible for them to be surprised, upset, and angry when it happens again. America is quite an old country, already well into its third century, and by now its people have been lied to more times than a month of TV commercials, but they still get upset at being told untruths by those whom they have elected. This is said to be a sign of the nation's enduring idealism and high ethical standards. That may be so, or it may be a sign of political infantilism, a refusal to recognize that one has grown up and been allotted a place in the adult world of nations.

From the Spanish-American War forward there have been an unending series of official cock and bull stories which have been taken as sober fact by the public. Some of the stories were so obviously unbelievable that the masses had to be complicitous in their own deception. The idea that the enfeebled Spanish government, collapsing in imperial desuetude, would for no reason blow up the battleship Maine as it visited one of its ports is self-evident trash, but highly serviceable for starting the 1898 Spanish-American War.

World War I propaganda about Prussian Schrecklichkeit or terrorism based itself on countless, fictitious stories of murder, plunder and rape. The American imagination was, from 1916 to 1918, littered with women dishonored and babies bayoneted by the slobbering Hun.

In the 1930s a certain number of Americans fought free of amnesia and remembered what they had been told by their betters about Germany in the months leading up to World War I. When similar stories about the Nazis began coming out of Germany twenty years later, they did not believe. Fool me once, your fault; fool me twice, mine. Some of these people supported the America First isolationist movement, which opposed involvement in the European war. In general, however, lying does work. If it didn't, fewer politicians would do it; although as the Bush-Iraq fiasco demonstrates, some artfulness, some talent and intelligence is needed.

Lying and/or withholding the facts-which is much the same thing-is often done for the public's good. When the Japanese air force sank or severely damaged all the battleships of the United States' Pacific Fleet, Americans were not told about it. Not only didn't American officials admit what had happened, they told reporters that ships which were resting on the bottom of the sea at Pearl Harbor were still afloat. The Japanese had planes zipping over the American naval base; they knew what they had sunk. They could see it. The lying was strictly for home consumption.

Officials also played down the fact that during the 1930s America was supplying Japan with the materiel for its armed forces. Though not prominent in the newspapers, it was a common, if bitter, belief in New York that when the 6th Avenue "E1" was torn down the scrap was sold to Japan- which returned it in the form of bullets and bombs. The selling of arms to putative enemies predates Iraq by a millennium or two.

How the people in government thought they could get away with some of their whoppers is past imagining. After the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, talk started getting around that there were post-bomb deaths caused by radiation. The government immediately denied it and the head of the Manhattan Project, Major General Leslie R. Groves, pronounced that, "This talk about radio-activity is so much nonsense." What was the point of that one? And how long did they think they could get away with it? So much high level lying is purposeless, done from habit. How else to explain the line of half-baked, nutty, next-day refutable lies coming out of the Bush White House about weapons, terrorists, plans, and intentions?

American prisoners being returned by the North Koreans after the cease-fire ended hostilities in 1953 were ordered to sign statements promising not to discuss anything having to do with captivity to any media representative not bound by Pentagon censorship rules. Washington did not want the country to know about the degree and kind of collaboration with the enemy which took place in the prison camps.

The peccadilloes of the Korean War have been lost in the continuing miasma about the truths and the falsities of the Vietnam War. Long book shelves are devoted to volumes discussing lies told, lies exposed, and lies retold in connection with that war, whose shadow falls obliquely on George Bush's Dance in the Desert almost forty years later.

Officially, the full Vietnam War began with events in the Gulf of Tonkin, August 1 and 4, 1964, when, according to the American government, a couple of North Vietnamese patrol boats attacked a U.S. destroyer.

This was the lie upon which Congress voted, with only two nay votes in the Senate and none in the House, what amounted to a declaration of war. But was the report of the action in the Tonkin Gulf a lie? And if it was a lie, what kind of a lie? To this day there is considerable doubt that a second attack ever occurred, but what of the first? Whatever kind of attack it was, the destroyer survived unscathed and probably untouched by the arrows, spears, and whatever else a tiny patrol boat could launch at a mighty modern cruiser.

The nation and its editorial pages launched their own attacks against the North Vietnamese, as every institution of authority and prestige, and all major media, including the Washington Post and the New York Times, cheered the oncoming war, which would eventually see a half a million American troops engaged-of whom more than ten percent would come back dead. Later on many who could not wait to get on with the war would say they had been lied to and that, if they had known the truth, they would never have supported sending the boys over there.

If a person studies history for a short while, it will come to the person that the government lies a lot, maybe even all the time. If you know that they lie, you may be able to see that the lie of the hour is farcical and far fetched; you know to disbelieve it.

When, on December 29,1989, with little public notice, more than 20,000 American soldiers invaded Panama, the reason given was the capture of the country's drug pusher-CIA operative-dictator-and-bully boy Manuel Noriega. The actual reasons are subject to speculation to this day. The invasion may have been to make Panamanians understand that the independence the United States had recently granted them and their canal was for show only. Or it may have been that Noriega, a dirt bag if there ever was one, had been party to deals with the American government and the administration of Bush the elder was afraid he'd try his hand at blackmail. Noriega was taken off to Florida, where he got a taste of American courtroom justice and was thrown into a dungeon, where he resides as of this writing.

The events in and around the Panama invasion are open to the vilest interpretations because the only reporters the government allowed were literally kept locked up in a warehouse until the fun was over. The festivities included the deaths of 2,000 and the wounding of perhaps 70,000 Panamanians, as well as the burning of parts of their capital city. Although a few malcontents have brought the Panama episode up from time to time, overall the government's lying by silence and secrecy seems to have worked well for the people in charge.

A coup de main brought off by a brigade or two of soldiers, and even perhaps the unexplained deaths, could be done by lying through stealth and censorship, but Gulf War I was too big to be done without somebody saying something, true or untrue. You would have thought that Saddam Hussein's indefensible invasion of Kuwait was enough, but, a la World War I, the western ministries of truth had to gild the lily, updating the old Hun atrocity stories about killing babies, etc. Why did they make up tales of atrocities about Saddam when there were bucketfuls of authenticated stories about his murders, rapes, tortures and thefts? It is almost as if the government liars wished to discredit themselves and their cause.

They also made overreaching claims concerning the ability of the United States Air Force to perform "surgical strikes," which all but eliminated civilian casualties unless Saddam was using them as hostages (as if killing a few civilians ever stopped any army anywhere or anytime). This prevarication got the military involved in a succession of controversies each time one of its bombs went awry and killed "innocent" civilians. (Parenthetically, are there any other kind of civilians, and is one justified, if there are, in killing "guilty" ones, or is the term one more cliché of the propagandist's craft? Its use, which is almost universal, is a sure clue the speaker is selling a point of view.)

You would think that in a war easily won against an all but impotent opponent, the winning side might want to pick up credit by scrupulously telling the truth. Losers are always liars, but why should winners be the same? Commanding General Norman Schwarzkopf told the press that, "The Patriot's success, of course, is known to everyone. It's one hundred percent." President Bush, the elder, said much the same thing, when the military knew perfectly well this missile could not hit the broad side of a barn on a sunny day. These lies were probably not primarily aimed at the inhabitants of the biosphere but at Israeli citizens. The United States did not want Israel in the war for fear it would rile up its Arab allies, but Saddam was hurling his own inaccurate, but nevertheless frightening, missiles at Israel. Since it would take a few days to shut the Iraqis down, it was decided to lie to the Israelis, who were to think they were protected when they were not.

That kind of lying works. It is a political version of the placebo effect. If a trustworthy and respected source says something false, it will be taken for true even against the evidence of one's eyes and ears. They would not lie if people did not believe the lies, and to make acceptance more likely, about half of what they say is true. But there is no easy method for figuring out which half.

The pattern repeats itself in Iraq. If you wanted to go to war regardless of the excuse, or if you didn't care particularly or weren't interested in politics or you accepted whatever your betters told you, then you took the shoddy stuff that Bush, Cheney, Powell, Wolfowitz, and Rumsfeld were pumping out with no questions asked. All the newspapers and television stations echoed back at the boss politicians, "Good to go!", and from one end of the vast crystalline biosphere to the other, the cry went up, "Ready to rumble, red, white, and blue!"


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